It was clear; I was not Manet’s Type.
Picasso-who had a way with women- only used me
& Duchamp never even considered me.
-Carrie Mae Weems, Not Manet’s Type| Photo Series
Skin like mine never did manage to make its way into the conventional art history courses or enable work to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Well, there was that “African Phase,” Oh! and we all know that one piece Olympia where the Black maid happens to be painted in. And I’m pretty sure that the majority of African art stolen and exhibited in non African Museums are worth a pretty penny, but where does that profit go? Hm… I feel like I am walking a tight rope here. Contemplating the Black Female in Art only drives me to dead ends and leaves me wondering WHY? As a well-institutionalized fine artist I have been given the subtle and not so subtle message to be tight lipped on this matter and keep it moving. “It’s not attractive to keep talking about the race thing,” I’ve been told. I have never taken well to ill-advised direction, and this will be no exception. As it has been said that Aristotle wrote Nicomachean Ethics for his son Nicomachus, I write this piece for my unborn daughter, for if the apple does not fall too far from the roots, and in the event that she too happens to be born an Artist. I also write this for women like myself, who are driven to create work in a field, which we are invisible.
I thought it might be beneficial for the sake of Black Female Artists if I share thoughts of, and inspired by, women who have managed to become visible in the Fine Art realm. Saturday January 5th, 2013, Le Femme Flaneur and friends were absolutely honored to tickled to attend Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturday event. Yes, it happens the first Saturday of each month. So why were we so excited? Both Carrie Mae Weems and Mickalene Thomas were present to give a talk concerning Race, Beauty and Identity. Their extreme contributions to a void in Fine Art, as well as the random chance to catch them speaking simultaneously was something extraordinary for me. Weems’ work is most influential for creating a space for the Black Female to be seriously considered beyond the limitations of social roles and as real, thoughtful beings who are aware of those very limitations. Thomas, a younger Artist whose work is beyond stirring a buzz, has managed to do what Weems hoped her work would pave for us, created her own space. Weems and Thomas have both created works directly commenting on the absence of the Black Female in Art, never being acknowledged as a real entity by the “Great Artists.” By making visual and literal commentary to specific artists and specific art pieces, the works of Weems and Thomas walk a path alongside the works of the “Great Artists” and cultivate a new evocative discourse.
As soon as Weems began to speak, nothing but a lovely fusion of insight, wisdom, and even some well-channeled anger came from a naturally melodic voice. Thomas opened the discussion by sharing that upon viewing Weems’ work for the first time she decided to pursue her Art career with conviction. Weems was so humbled by the gratitude of Thomas, our generational superstar, whose career was unknowingly inspired into existence by Weems. Everyone in the audience could feel the collective warmth of witnessing this full circle exchange. The entire talk felt like one of those winning “ah ha” moments. Here we were, a room full of mostly Black females, in a museum, freely discussing our dismissal from an entire genre of culture. We are rarely granted this public opportunity. What I found most beautiful was that the conversation did not fixate on victimization nor was it a pity fest. Rather, it was an investigation of where we have been and what we need to consider in moving forward. It was inspirational at the very least. I left the talk feeling enough support to elevate my purpose in creating.
The following is a list of the fundamental points that were raised that evening. I have reconstructed them into questions and worded them in way to facilitate a progression and maturation of thought. My goal is not to provide answers. All paths must be walked individually. My goal is to ask the right questions. I believe that all well versed, emerging (and non emerging) artists should become comfortable in questioning and searching for the answers here; particularly women of color as these topics directly pertain to our life experience and our artistic development.
A Checklist to Actively Creating Your Space
Come to Terms:
How does one come to terms with and acknowledge the fact that an entire scope of people (hers) has been visually and aesthetically excluded from a cultural fixture as major as Art?
Does your work have to be defined as Black Art because you are a Black Artist? What is Black Art? How do we break from being seen as “Other” and allow our work to be viewed as simply Art?
Can you reclaim a space that was never created for you and hence never yours?
How do you visually negotiate and create work that is true to yourself and your own in a field where you are not meant to be seen?
How do you assert your right to be here?
Do you take responsibility to create a space or niche for yourself and artists like you? Should you?
How well does and/or will your work present Black Females as whole and complex as we are?
I challenge you to be an aware artist, creative, art collector, or visual person. I challenge you to not be passive or deem people “too sensitive” for raising these pertinent issues. If we were more comfortable in having these discussions, more progress would be made. Look beyond that sliver of a peephole through which we are commonly viewed and see the Black Female as whole and complex as we are.